Sung Morning Prayer and Sermon for Lent IV

Led by the St Martin’s Chapel Consort, Morning Prayer begins on Pg 78 of the Book of Common Prayer or online here. This morning’s hymns are 646 (opening) and 141 (closing). The psalm is 23 found on pg 612 and the canticles are numbers 9, The first Song of Isaiah, and 15 (pg 86), The Song of Mary (pg 91). The Anthem is Ubi Caritas by Ola Gjeilo.

Sung Morning Prayer

The sermon from the Rev. Mark Sutherland

John 9:1-41

Alain de Botton reviewing in the N Y Times Albert Camus’ The Plague published in 1947, writes that Camus believed that all plagues or what today we tend to call pandemics, are merely concentrations of a universal condition – that all human beings are vulnerable to being randomly exterminated at any time, by a virus, an accident, or the actions of our fellow man.

Camus muses on how hard it is for the plague stricken people of Oran to accept this world view. Somehow as modern people with 20th-century amenities, they are not going to die like the wretches of 17th -century London or 18th-century Canton.

In terms of the unpredictable fragility of human life, history marks no progress. We are no better able to escape our fragile state than our forebears were. De Botton notes : Being alive always was and will always remain an emergency; it is truly an inescapable “underlying condition“.

In The Plague, Camus speaks into our own times because he understood the changelessness of the human predicament. Because, no amount of technological progress, of sustained economic growth can ultimately conceal that which we spend all our time hiding from – that is, everyone has the plague within them: because no one in the world, no one is immune.

It seems that Jesus also understood the truth Camus grasped. In John’s story of the man born blind – one of John’s sign stories, Jesus challenges us to open our eyes to a new world view – to turn away from judgement and embrace our common solidarity.

We are currently living through a period of huge anxiety. The speed with which the Coronavirus has catapulted us into this global crisis leaves us all bewildered and fearful. Despite the growing evidence, no one it seems saw a world pandemic coming. Certainly no government, perhaps apart from Singapore was prepared. To quote President Trump – who knew?

The Coronavirus pandemic and its global collateral economic damage poses a serious and urgent challenge to our world view. As 21st-century people, Western people, Americans no less – we harbor the illusion that the precariousness of our frailty is an artifact of former more brutish times. We find ourselves reeling – yearning for some solid ground on which to stand as the world shapes and then reshapes around us like the patterns of rapidly shifting sand dunes.

We are those incredulous disciples of Jesus who comfort themselves with false distinctions as they ask: Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents; that he was born blind. 

They want to locate the man’s blindness in his history -so as to protect the themselves from contemplating the reality of their own fragile vulnerability to misfortune. The truth is that no one is any more or less protected against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune – the callous unpredictability of affliction and adversity.

In this story from John, Jesus challenges our tendency to scapegoat others whose experience threatens our security or complacency. As President Trump likes to say – it’s a foreign – a Chinese virus. How exactly is this a comfort?

This is just another example of attempts to distance ourselves through scapegoating others. Throughout his ministry Jesus’ most serious conflicts always center on his confrontation with the way religion draws these kinds of distinctions as a mask for the hardness of the human heart.

At the end of the day we cannot distance ourselves from our common and shared vulnerability to chance. We need to open our blind eyes and begin to see that all we succeed in doing is to distance ourselves from our fear. We then will discover the insight Jesus invites us to take to heart.

The man born blind receives more than his sight. In his dawning realization that the man who cured him is none other than the messiah he moves from sight to insight. Having recovered our sight can we risk the similar journey from sight to insight?

If we can what will we discover?

In his contrast between the responses of Oran’s doctor and the parish priest Camus echoes John’s portrayal of the tension between Jesus and the Pharisees. The priest condemns the suffering he sees explaining it away as God’s punishment for sin. Who has sinned – Jesus disciples ask him? This man has sinned by healing on the sabbath – the Pharisees complain both seek to harden their hearts against God.

Camus’ doctor knows that suffering is a comic tragedy -and if accepted as such leads to a softening of the heart. Camus’ doctor says that the only way to fight the plague is with decency. When asked what decency means, the doctor responds that decency: is doing my job.

For Jesus as well as for Camus’ doctor, decency means to commit to living lives of courage, trust, fueled by hope, not the fairytale hope in faith as some magical protection, some divine insurance policy, a denial of fear, but the hope rooted in a refusal to be defeated by fear of the random unpredictability of suffering.

The movement from denial to sight to insight – leads us to a surprising rediscovery. In the face of fear we just need to be decent enough to do the job God called us here for. We are all in this together, all equally vulnerable facing the reality of the world together.

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